Ecotourism and Conservation

Ecotourism can contribute to sustainable development. In the artical Ecotourism Why It is Important I discussed ecotourism's economic and ecological advantages to Costa Rica and other destinations. But does ecotourism always help local economies and significantly preserve visited habitats and wildlife? This question is important because increasingly, the fostering of ecotourism is suggested by indigenous people in developing nations, by the nations themselves, and by international conservation organizations, as one of the best methods to preserve natural resources and biodiversity almost anywhere that they are threatened. Certainly it works to a degree - witness success stories in places such as Kenya and, especially, Costa Rica . However, as with any popular program that undergoes rapid growth, there are problems. Many people who monitor tourism - researchers and government officials - believe that in the rush to make money from ecotourism, benefits are often overstated and problems ignored.

Many private companies purporting to be "ecotour" operators are "eco-" in name only; they are interested solely in profits, and are not concerned about local economies or the wild areas into which they take tourists. There is increasing concern about monetary "leakage": despite attempts to keep most of the ecotourist revenues in local destination economies, many of those dollars, more than 50% by recent estimates, leak back to large urban areas of destination countries and even to developed nations; relatively little actually is spent on conservation. In some countries, ecotourism is an unstable source of local employment and economic well-being. Tour bookings are heavily dependent on seasonal trends, on the weather, on a country's political situation, and on worldwide currency fluctuations. Finally, popularity as an ecotourism site may inevitably lead to its failing. As ecotourism expands dramatically, sites that are over-used and under-managed will be damaged. Trails in forests gradually enlarge and deepen, erosion occurs, crowds of people are incompatible with natural animal behavior. Also, ecotourism's success harms itself in another way: when any area becomes too popular, many travellers wanting to experience truly wild areas and quiet solitude no longer want to go there; that is, with increasing popularity, there is an inexorable deterioration of the experience.

Thus, ecotourism is not a miracle cure-all for conservation; these days it is understood to be a double-edged sword. Clearly, large numbers of people visiting sites cannot help but have adverse impacts on those sites. But as long as operators of the facilities are aware of negative impacts, careful management practices can reduce damage. Leakage of ecotourist revenue away from the habitats the money was meant to conserve is difficult to control, but some proportion of the money does go for what it is intended and, with increased awareness of the problem, perhaps that proportion can be made to grow. Travellers themselves can take steps to ensure that their trips help rather than hurt visited sites - How Ecotourism helps

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